Basic Geographic Concepts

Caitlin Dempsey


Listed here are the basic geographic concepts for geographic understanding and inquiry.  When looking at the geography of an area, what are some of the geographic questions?

Geographic Concepts

Basic geographic concepts are:

  • Location
  • Region
  • Place (physical and cultural attributes)
  • Density, Dispersion, Pattern
  • Spatial Interaction
  • Size and Scale


Location can be described in two ways: absolute and relative and answers the question of “Where is it?” Absolute describes the position of a feature or event in space, using some form of geographic coordinates.  Relative uses descriptive text to describe the position of the feature or event in relationship to another object or event. What is the distance and direction of a place from another?  For example, the hurricane will hit landfall 30 miles north of Town A.  Understand the location of features or events is the building blocks to geographic study, including using GIS for mapping and analysis.


Regions are groupings of geographic information.  A region is a geographic area defined by one or more distinctive characteristics.  Regions can be based on physical features (such as a watershed), political boundaries (a county, country, or continent), culture or religion, or other categorized geographies. Regions can be formal, functional, or perceptual.  Formal regions are also known as homogenous or uniform region.  Entities within a formal region share one or more common traits such as the residents of a country.  a functional region is a region anchored by a focal point.  Examples are a customer service area for a restaurant delivery service or the school district for an elementary school.  A vernacular region (also known as a popular or perceptive region) is a geographic area that exists as part of a cultural or ethnic identity and therefore don’t adhere to political or formal regional boundaries.

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Place looks at the physical and/or cultural attributes of a place is important.  Physical characteristics include: weather and temperature, land and soil, and plant and animal life. Cultural attributes include: languages, religions and ethnicities, where and how people settle, transportation, economics, and politics.

Density, Dispersion, Pattern

Understanding spatial pattern is an important aspect of geographic inquiry.  Spatial pattern looks at commonality in geography across regions.  How are things arranged?  Is the arrangement regular?  Is there a pattern to the distribution?

Spatial Interaction

Spatial interaction is the cause and effect of an event in one region or area that affects another area and takes a look at the connectivity and relationships of features.  For example, a change in land use from rural to high density can affect traffic congestion in adjoining areas.  The 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helen affected an area far beyond the volcanic site with ash fallout reach across several states.

Map of Ash fallout from the 1980 Mount St. Helen eruption.
Map of Ash fallout from the 1980 Mount St. Helen eruption.

Size and scale

Geographic features are visualized using a map which is a representation of reality.  The size and scale affects the degree of generalization of the features being mapped.  The smaller the scale, the less detail is shown.  In other words, a small scale shows a larger geographic area (e.g. a map of the world or of a continent) but shows more generalized features and less detail (e.g. only major highways and major rivers).  A large scale map shows a smaller geographic area (e.g. a map of a city or a neighborhood) but shows a greater amount of detail (e.g. the entire street network and all branches of a river).

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.